After a night’s sleep disturbed by the crowing of roosters, Jill Kester likes to get her jaws around a weasel coffee or two. But just where does this super-coffee come from? Illustration by Vu Ha Kim Vy
You wake up to the sound of roosters crowing, the scritch-scritch-scritch of street-cleaners sweeping away last night’s bia hoi detritus with their bamboo brooms, backpackers crawling in after a late flight and an even later night at the clubs, and wafting through the window is the smell of deep, rich coffee mixed with mocha and an unidentifiable je ne sais quoi. You vow you will not do another thing until you drink a cup of weasel coffee.
Why are we (and by ‘we’ I mean ‘I’) so fascinated by a beverage that essentially comes from weasel poo? Moreover, who in the H-E-double-toothpicks came up with it in the first place? Let me share with you the scene I imagine in my head:
Two Frenchmen, squatting on tiny stools in the highlands of Vietnam, surrounded by piles of freshly picked coffee berries, are laboriously peeling away the outer fruit of the berries to extract the bean from the inside. Just then a weasel scurries by, pausing only to, well, relieve himself, and leaves behind a steaming chocolaty swirl punctuated with beautifully processed, bronzed coffee beans.
“Et voila!” exclaims Pierre. No more peeling away of the fruit by hand. “Laissez les animaux faire le travail!” Let the weasels do the work.
Of course, now they will need to pick through the pile of poo by hand, a thought which occurs to the other Frenchman.
Jacques begins to protest, “Mais, mais…” But it is too late. Weasel coffee est né.
Yes, I think about weasels, and weasel coffee, a lot. I mean A LOT.
Most of you who live in Hanoi have seen the bins of so-called weasel coffee lining the streets of the touristy Old Quarter. It may appear to be a part of Vietnamese culture, but legend (and by ‘legend’ I mean the ‘internet’) has it that the French introduced this very special way of processing coffee beans.
The actual process is as follows: whole coffee berries are fed to weasels whose stomach enzymes digest away the outer layer and improve the flavour of the inner bean. No weasels are harmed in the process because we don’t surgically retrieve the beans from their little bellies. Oh no, we wait for nature to take its course and the beans come out, well, naturally. That’s right, the weasels poop out the beans, which are then collected, cleaned and sold for up to US$500 (VND10.9 million) a kilo.
In case you are thinking I made all this up (ok, in all fairness, I have made most of this up except for the following bit) you ought to know I used a reputable source for my information — The Economist, because they are a magazine that cares about the economy.
Weasel Dee and Weasel Dum
So The Economist cares about the financial side, the French care about the coffee bean flavour, the fictitious Pierre cares about the workload, but who cares about the weasels? Has anyone ever bothered to consider their perspective?
How would you feel if you were forced to poop for a living?
I imagine one weasel with a Run DMC (a necklace-wearing rapper from the 1980s. What? You weren’t even born then?) necklace around his neck — it’s a huge dollar sign encrusted with diamonds. He sighs contentedly as he leans back with paws behind his head, “I can’t complain. Can you believe I get paid to… wait, hold on a sec… ahhhhh, there’s another 25 bucks. Duuuude, this is the life!”
Or consider the weasel with a nagging wife who approaches him to complain they need more money for junior’s college fund and he needs to take on extra work. The poor fellow shouts, “Come on, give a guy a break! Eat more, poop more. Eat more, poop more — that’s all I ever hear from you! I can’t take it any more!”
For some reason, in my head, this weasel talks in an over-the-top New York accent.
Then there are the more sensitive weasels who feel the work is completely beneath their dignity.
“Ah man, I can’t believe we are force-fed coffee beans and then made to — I can’t even say it. Where’s the humanity?! I really think we should protest! Yes, let’s go on strike this very minute… oops!” He looks at the ‘product’ he just left on the ground. “Well, uh, let’s start the strike tomorrow.”
Don’t tell me you don’t think about this from time to time… No? Huh.
Well, perhaps you’ll think about the poor weasels next time you are souvenir-shopping for folks back home and not wanting to buy a conical hat you’ll awkwardly have to wear on your head in the airport because it won’t fit in your suitcase, or an i-Pho t-shirt that they will most likely use to wipe up spilled beer. Instead you pick up a bag of weasel coffee, mistakenly thinking they will find it amusing. The recipient (actually, it’s my brother Andy) might just shake his head in disgust at your lack of maturity. And you’ve not only lost the last shred of respect this person had for you, but you’ve wasted a good couple of hundred thousand dong on what is probably not even real weasel coffee.
That’s right. The coffee sold in the Old Quarter? Too cheap to be the real thing. Which leads me to wonder how one would produce imitation weasel coffee. I’ll leave you with that thought (and a few of you making gagging noises) and my parting question:
Isn’t it time you gave more thought to weasel coffee?